Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kuna Yala (San Blas), Panama's untouched Caribbean Jewel

Of the various places you may be fortunate to travel, the Kuna tribe of Panama may steal your heart.

Kuna Yala, also known to tourists as San Blas, is an autonomous region on the Caribbean coast of Panama, comprising some 400 islands. Only 40 or so are inhabited, which means that you can yacht or boat it out to many pristine deserted islands.

Unlike most tourists, however, staying with the Kuna people could be the joy of your visit.

A land .... tranquil, silent.

Getting to Panama is easy.  The international airport in Panama City accepts flights from all over the world. Many backpackers come to Kuna Yala directly from Colombia by private yachts that do 5 day runs between Cartagena and Kuna Yala.

Flying in, one arrives in a pretty enough Panama City, framed by a blue ocean and thick inland mountains.

Panama City skyline

Once in Panama City you can browse around and enjoy the many social, cultural and iconic attractions of this major Central American city, including the mighty Panama Canal.

Panama Canal

Then hop a short 45 minute to an hour flight to any one of several of the Kuna Yala islands. I picked Playon Chico.

Kuna Yala is pristine, as if untouched for millions of years. You can have any type of vacation you like - kick back on a deserted beach soaking in the warm sun and snorkeling with colored fish ... 

or spend time in a Kuna village getting to know their history and way of life.

Pick up some Kuna language from your guidebook on the way to Kuna Yala...they'll get a kick out of it.

Welcome Nuegambi uese be noniki

Thanks Dot Nuet
Hello Na
Where are you from? Be bia lidi
What is your name? Igi be nuga

The Kuna people are simple, calm, courteous, and delightful company.

Here they are, preparing for an annual inter island dance festival and competition.

Barbara, a backpacker from Belgium and Spain, and this writer pose with our Kuna friend in front of the traditional molas...blouses made by hand by Kuna women depicting their history, art and culture.

Besides their ancient culture, lobsters are the pride of Kuna Yala. Every day a plane comes in from Panama City to take lobsters back. Here, Kuna friends feast inside a traditional Kuna hut.

This writer bought lobsters from this kid and his mom, with our friend Ulti in glasses also holding up a lobster for the photo. The lobsters are kept in cages in the ocean right behind the huts.

They can be pretty huge.

A lobster feast for one of the writer's 'families'. I would give the lobsters to the matriarch of each family and she would cook them with aplomb.

Kids pose in a 'cayuco' (ka-you-koo), the typical dug out canoe of the Kuna.

The writer's friend Lilith tells him to get to work building this new cabana on the tiny tourist isle of Yandup.

It was a delight for this traveler to work with the Kuna in building a cabana. They bring in the bamboo themselves from forests nearby. It's a pretty classy operation, building a cabana. A team of 4-10 men and women work on it 8-10 hours a day. They do it quick, and it is built to perfection.

This is the beautiful little spot of land called Yandup just a 5 minute motorboat ride from Playon Chico. It is owned by a Spanish woman and her Kuna husband. It's about the size of a football field, and has around 16 cabanas for tourists. Each cabana has a summery, breezy bedroom and a western style bathroom, and everything is eco friendly. Fresh water gets piped under the ocean from a river near Playon Chico. Used and flushed water goes into a septic tank.

Yandup, Kuna Yala

Backpackers and other tourists come from all over the world, having heard the whisperings .... Kuna Yala, an eden undisturbed, as of yet.

We're off exploring the jungles and looking for crocs with Kuna friend Adidili and her uncle in a cayuco.

Back safely, we meet Ulti's wife and kids. There are a lot of kids in Kuna villages. By my count, every family seems to have six. Honestly, two of Ulti's kids are not in the picture.

Kuna kids are a delightful bunch. This photographer came away changed forever by the simplicity and friendliness of the Kuna.

But one also feels sad. For all the tropical beauty and the pristine eco quality of their ocean home, the demand for their seafood in Panama City's gourmet restaurants and fish markets, and a well known anthropological interest in their culture and art - symbolized by the molas, the Kuna seem to remain poor. Healthcare, hygiene, food, and education are very modest.

Perhaps sponsorships for their schools and their art from organizations and corporations in the wealthier nations would be helpful.

Wishing you a wonderful journey to Panama, and to Kuna Yala. If you spend time with the Kuna rather than simply relaxing on a beach, you will be touched by their lives.

Kuna Yala (San Blas), Panama

Travel Tips
  1. Here's a helpful list of domestic airlines in Panama.
  2. International flights land at Tocumen International wheres most domestic flights use Allbrook. This is a list of all airports in Panama.
  3. From Panama City you can fly, 4x4, or possibly bus it part way, to Kuna Yala.
  4. English can be widely spoken in Panama, but not in Kuna Yala.
  5. The Kuna are a conservative people ... show respect, dress appropriately within the villages, and do not drink in public. Tourist women in bikinis and men shirtless is offensive to them inside their village, but ok on the beaches away from the village.
  6. Bring small gifts ... t-shirts, caps, sunglasses, books/magazines in English, candy for kids, are much appreciated.
  7. The inevitable question: can I take their photo? Yes, ask first, and they appreciate a $1 tip per picture ... they are a proud people, but your money does help them, sadly. The Kuna are not there for your entertainment nor as a freak show ... they have a long, rich history that spans Panama and Colombia. Regard them with the same respect as you would expect from a tourist to your city in Europe, United States, Oceania...
  8. When the tourists are gone, many wear normal western style casual clothing and go about their daily lives.
  9. Many travelers want to travel from Kuna Yala to the other Caribbean destination in Panama, Bocas del Torro, or the other way round. One must transit through Panama City, unfortunately. There are no direct flights between Bocas and Comarca Kuna Yala.
  10. You can do a 5 day private yacht ride from Kuna Yala to Cartagena, Colombia, a fascinating country with a deeply shared history with Panama, that should not be missed if a traveler has the time.

Read the Planet News section of this blog if you're interested in culture and wildlife conservation... it has the latest news from around the globe.



  1. I'm so happy to have found your blog! Its great, its so real.
    Thank you for following mine :).
    May I ask how you stumbled across Savage Travels?

    Take care and keep it up!

    ~ ~

  2. I went to Kuna Yala this year too stayed at Iguana Island, very quiet with just 6 cabinas, fried fish and lobster nearly every meal! I live in David Panama where i own and operate the backpackers hostel we do some booking for island accomodations as the Kuna Yala!


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